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Meet Haifaa al-Mansour, the Saudi Woman Challenging Riyadh—and Hollywood—to Evolve

With her country at a crossroads, the “crazy more than brave" director of Mary Shelley tells a story of a woman underestimated.

When Haifaa al-Mansour’s agent first brought her the offer for her latest movie, an origins tale about Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, the 43-year-old director was perplexed. “I was like, ‘What? I’m from Saudi Arabia, and this is a period movie in English and I don’t know,’” al-Mansour said. But when she read about Shelley, whose authorship of the 1818 gothic novel was questioned because of her sex, al-Mansour found parallels to her own life growing up in one of the most conservative societies in the world, where women just earned the right to vote in 2015 and the right to drive in 2018. “It reminded me of home somehow,” al-Mansour said. “Like when they expect women to be a certain way, their voices are taken for granted. I really connected with Mary Shelley.”

Al-Mansour is Saudi Arabia’s most famous director, a remarkable feat in a country where both her gender and her art form have been severely restricted. Wadjda, a tender drama about a 10-year-old girl who enrolls in a Koran-recitation competition to win money for a bicycle she’s forbidden to ride, was the kingdom’s first submission to the Academy Awards, in 2012. Mary Shelley, which stars Elle Fanning as the Frankenstein author, opened in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on May 25 and is available on demand as of June 1.

Now, as Saudi Arabia lifts its 35-year-old ban on movie theaters, al-Mansour, a petite, sneaker-wearing mother of two, is positioned to become in effect an ambassador between Hollywood and Riyadh. In April, she was one of three women invited to join the kingdom’s General Authority for Culture, a government body devoted to developing new arts-and-entertainment sectors. The invitation arrived as tickets to Disney’s Black Panther sold out in 15 minutes at a new theater in Riyadh, and as Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (or “M.B.S.,” as he’s called), came to Los Angeles for meetings as part of a broader P.R. and investor-relations effort.

His reopening of movie theaters is a welcome reform within Saudi Arabia and abroad, but M.B.S. is a leader with a complex profile, who has detained many of his political adversaries and backed a proxy war in Yemen with regional rival Iran. For Hollywood, there is a financial incentive to look past any reservations about the regime: estimates project a reopened Saudi box office to represent $1 billion in revenue by the year 2030, and Rupert Murdoch, Disney C.E.O. Bob Iger, William Morris Endeavor boss Ari Emanuel, and Oprah Winfrey were among those on M.B.S.’s L.A. itinerary.

For al-Mansour, the opening of her country to movies is a step in its possible evolution, one which has geopolitical ramifications throughout the region and beyond. “I’m progressive and liberal. I’m not that typical Saudi,” she said in a recent interview over tea near where she lives in California’s San Fernando Valley. “So it’s just wonderful that they chose me to be in this very high position. Saudi Arabia sets the tone for the rest of the Muslim world. If Saudi starts exporting ideas with art and cinema, that definitely will see a shift in all those radical conservative societies.”

The eighth of 12 children of a Saudi poet, al-Mansour grew up between Riyadh and Al-Hasa in the east, where her family moved when her father took consulting work in the oil industry. In an ultra-conservative environment, her mother wore a lighter veil than was expected, an act of quiet defiance that embedded itself in al-Mansour’s consciousness. “Everybody would be talking about her, that she’s very proud of who she is, and she doesn’t want to hide it,” al-Mansour said. “As a kid I was always embarrassed. This woman, I have nothing to do with her. I was always running away when she came to my school. But things like this make me stronger now. I appreciate it a lot better. What she did made me realize how important it is to be true to yourself and not to follow whatever is around you if it is limiting, if it is not right.”

Though the strict interpretation of Islam that prevailed at the time prohibited theaters, al-Mansour’s family regularly rented VHS tapes of Jackie Chan movies, Bollywood films, and Walt Disney animated features. When her school required the girls to perform plays on subjects like prayer and appropriate dress, al-Mansour volunteered to write and direct them, taking pride when she could inject humor into the didactic topics and get a laugh out of her classmates. “It’s a place where I felt in control, maybe,” al-Mansour said. The filmmaker deploys a mischievous wit in the way she leads her life, too, and seems to get away with a level of subversiveness because of it. When she married her husband, Bradley Niemann, a U.S. State Department employee she met when he was stationed at the consulate in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, women still didn’t have driving rights in the kingdom. Al-Mansour drove a golf cart to her wedding.

Like many of her young countrymen, al-Mansour found that her time outside Saudi Arabia was formative. After she earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature at the American University in Cairo and enjoyed her relative freedom there, she felt stifled by the repressive culture when she returned home. The power she couldn’t exert in day-to-day life, however, she found a way to express through film. With her siblings serving as cast and crew, she made a short film about a male serial killer who hides under a woman’s black abaya. She also hosted a talk show for a Lebanese network, directed a documentary about Saudi women, and followed Niemann to a posting in Australia, where she earned a scholarship and a master’s degree in film studies at the University of Sydney and wrote the script for Wadjda. Rena Ronson, a partner at United Talent Agency, spotted the filmmaker at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where she had won an award for her unproduced Wadjda script. “I saw this very tiny woman in a sea of men, and I wanted to know: What was her script?” Ronson said. “She was this strong, confident woman who told this global story. Everyone wants something they can’t have in life.”

Abdullrahman Al Gohani, al-Mansour, and Waad Mohammed on the set of Wadjda.PHOTOGRAPH BY TOBIAS KOWNATZKI/©SONY PICTURES CLASSICS/EVERETT COLLECTION.

When Ronson began representing al-Mansour, she took on the director’s seemingly impossible ambition to shoot her first feature within the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an idea that deterred many potential financiers. They secured the roughly $2.5 million budget from a mix of sources, including Rotana Group, an entertainment company primarily owned by Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, an early advocate for women’s employment in the kingdom, and the Germany-based Razor Film.

To cast her child lead, al-Mansour put the word out among companies that hire folkloric dancers for the Eid holidays. While shooting exteriors in Riyadh, she hid in a van and communicated with her crew via walkie-talkies so as not to violate strict Saudi rules for women in public spaces. “It was crazy more than brave,” al-Mansour said. “Sometimes I don’t know if I cross the line until people tell me. And I’m like, ‘Wait, what did I do?’ “ The crew encountered a range of reactions from locals—some chased them away, while others asked to be extras and brought gifts of plates of lamb and rice to the set.

In order to submit Wadjda for Oscar consideration, Saudi Arabia had to allow it to be exhibited; with theaters still banned at the time, al-Mansour screened her film at cultural centers and literary clubs. The movie’s protagonist, a Saudi girl wearing blue jeans and black Converse All-Stars, provided an accessible contrast to the prevailing image of Saudi females in the West, as hidden, mysterious figures cloaked in their abayas. “The movie put the country on the map in a way that was positive,” Ronson said. “I would like to say it opened up some eyes.”

Mary Shelley is al-Mansour’s first English-language film and her first experience directing without looking over her shoulder at her country’s censors. She shot the movie in Ireland, Luxembourg, and France, and was able to film love scenes between Fanning as Mary Shelley and English actor Douglas Booth as poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a type of scene virtually impossible to direct in her homeland. “You inherit that self-censorship,” al-Mansour said. “What you should say, what you shouldn’t say. In directing Mary Shelley, I didn’t have that censorship in my mind or up in my shoulders. It was fun, just to be. We weren’t focused on what is right or wrong. It was more like: is the weather allowing this? In Saudi, it’s always ‘Don’t show this, don’t show that, don’t.’ And here I said to the actors, ‘Just get naked.’ And the actors are like, ‘Yes.’”

If many in the West are skeptical of M.B.S.’s regime, al-Mansour said she is convinced the cultural shifts he has initiated will have a powerful, positive impact on the daily lives of the Saudi people, especially women. From her position on the General Authority for Culture, she’ll be involved in creating scholarships for Saudis who wish to study the arts abroad, building academies within the country, and drafting financial incentives for filmmakers to work locally. How much freedom of expression she will have in that role will depend entirely on the attitudes of M.B.S., according to David Commins, a history professor at Dickinson College and the author of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

“It all depends on the crown prince,” Commins said. “If she has a green light, she has a green light. If he doesn’t like it, she will find out. They try to—their word—‘guide’ people to the right way.” Al-Mansour hopes to use the position to do some guiding of her own. “I want to foster the development of more Saudi voices through the arts, especially women, and give them a platform to express themselves,” al-Mansour said.

The new rights for Saudi women are arriving as their counterparts in Hollywood and other American industries have begun speaking out about issues they face, such as a wage gap and sexual harassment, via the activist group Time’s Up. “It is hard to stress how big the changes are for women in Saudi Arabia, to be allowed to drive and work in public,” al-Mansour said. “Seeing women around the world stand up for themselves through the Time’s Up movement will definitely resonate with Saudi women and—I hope—inspire them to approach these issues more themselves.”

In many ways, al-Mansour now leads the life of a typical American working mother. On the day we met, she was taking meetings with composers for her next film and trying to figure out how to get a mountain of laundry done before leaving for a trip. Her husband took a sabbatical from the State Department to work for a year at P. . . aramount Pictures in a government-relations role, and her children, a son and daughter, ages 8 and 10, have taken to living in the suburbs of L.A. “I haven’t been in old America, but my husband says it is very much like old America,” al-Mansour said of the quiet neighborhood where she lives. “The kids can play around, and they know their neighbors and all.” Hers is a tiny family by Saudi standards, however. “Every time I go home I get a lecture, ‘Only two? It’s a shame,’” al-Mansour said. “And my mom just gets upset.”

Al-Mansour’s films all feature female protagonists in a battle against limiting expectations. She is in postproduction on the Netflix movie Nappily Ever After, a romantic comedy about hair and race, starring Sanaa Lathan. “It’s about accepting who you are and really embracing, falling in love with yourself,” al-Mansour said. “Which is really hard sometimes when you are African-American or Arab. Not Caucasian, tall, blonde . . . you know? That is the image we need to fill, and it is not biologically possible.” She and her husband have just set up an animated film, Miss Camel—about a Saudi street camel and teen girl who think they’re destined for bigger lives than the ones they’ve been given—at ShadowMachine, the company that produces Netflix’s BoJack Horseman. “It’s important for us women to challenge expectations, to challenge the stereotype,” al-Mansour said. “I don’t want my daughter to feel like she cannot do something just because she’s a girl . . . or pretend she’s not smart just to become popular. I will die if ever it happened. I want ‘popular’ to change. To be powerful, to be good in sports, to be a tomboy, that should be popular.”

Al-Mansour will return to Saudi Arabia in June to see Mary Shelley screen in one of the country’s newly built theaters, likely with its love scenes censored. The director insists this doesn’t bother her, as she assumed when she shot the film that it would never screen in her homeland at all. Al-Mansour also intends to return to the country in the coming months to shoot The Perfect Candidate, a script she wrote with her husband about a female doctor who wants to run in a municipal election. With financing from Germany and Saudi Arabia, and help from new Saudi filmmaking incentives, she expects to find her country an easier place to direct in than it was when she made Wadjda. As more Saudi women are claiming their space in public, she hopes that casting actresses will require less cajoling. “Then, filming wasn’t illegal but it wasn’t legal, so women were ashamed,” al-Mansour said. “It wasn’t clear. But now it is legal, so we will have casting notices, and an office. It will be more organized to get talent.”

Hollywood is focused on the box-office opportunities in Saudi Arabia, but al-Mansour is pushing for a two-way cultural exchange. She’d like people to film in Saudi Arabia’s red sand deserts, mountains, and historic sites, and to foster local filmmakers like herself. “The most exciting thing for me is to see more films coming from Saudi,” al-Mansour said. “A lot of Saudi young people are hungry to see themselves.”

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